Award-winning author Margaret Atwood visited UW-Madison Monday to discuss reinventing a classic story, and to give her Canadian perspective on national funding for the arts.
Atwood began with a quip about the U.S administration and said sarcastically she was “so happy she was able to cross the border.” She later criticized recent executive orders to cut funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“Defunding the arts is particularly disadvantageous to smaller communities, many of which have now built up an economy of sorts around things like music and theater … as those go, there’s going to be a big hole in the economy,” Atwood said, in the talk, which was hosted by the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities along with other organizations.
The Canadian author’s latest novel is a revitalization of William Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” in a more modern, technical setting.
Atwood explained the use of technology in the book, “Hag-Seed,” to a crowd of more than 1,000 people in Varsity Hall. The novel, named with a profane Old English word, depicts a 21st-century version of what she declared to be Shakespeare’s most technical play.
In Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” at the play’s conclusion, the main character Prospero says “set me free,” which are the final three words of the script that indicate the entire story was an illusion.
This phrase inspired the setting of Atwood’s 2016 rendition of the story. She wrote the new text as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, which asked modern writers to develop their own tales based off of the classic ones.
Her “Tempest” takes place in a Canadian prison and illustrates the production of a Shakespearean play by prisoners, directed by a recently fired director. The prisoners utilize audio and visualize technologies in the play, which is filmed and broadcast to other prisoners.
Atwood said she has been asked about her use of technology in the novel repeatedly since her book’s publication. The other two asked why Shakespeare and why “The Tempest”?
“I imprinted on [Shakespeare] the way baby ducks would imprint on a sheep or a turtle if it's the first thing they see,” Atwood said in response to why she decided to rewrite to Shakespeare. “And I’m not sorry. I could’ve imprinted on much worse … it could have been ‘[The] Catcher in the Rye.’”
In response to why she chose “The Tempest,” she said she told publishers she would write a version of that play, or she wouldn’t write anything at all. She also said she did it because she connected with Prospero as she, as well as other writers, ask themselves as they age how much of their work is “real magic.”
“In [‘The Tempest,’] the artist-magician renounces his magic. When is it the right time to do that?” Atwood said. “For those of us in the golden years … it’s another disconcerting question we all try to avoid without success. It had to be ‘The Tempest,’ and nothing else at my time of life.”